Censorship won't defeat extremist ideology - common sense will

Censorship won't defeat extremist ideology - common sense will
File photo of ISIS supporters.

TUCSON, US - The government made the right decision in unblocking Islamist websites, but not because blocking them was undemocratic.

The greater issue at hand is that pulling the plug is a terrible strategy.

It is at best useless and at worst detrimental to collective efforts aimed at stemming the tide of radical Islam.

We should abandon the false idea that you can defeat an ideology by censorship. It is akin to closing your eyes and then hoping the problem will go away.

When it comes to radical ideology, censorship only makes it stronger.

By nature, people want to know what they can't know, they want to see what they can't see and surely they want to read what they can't read.

We cannot afford to let the extremists win the hearts and minds of young Muslims by turning them into digital martyrs.

The government should realise that the only narrative resulting from abrupt and haphazard censorship is either "the government is anti-Islam" or "the government is hiding the truth".

Instead of silencing them, blocking those websites will increase the volume of their voices, making them even more appealing in some ways.

After all, we are dealing with an ideology that over the years has found refuge in and thrived on the Internet.

Modern jihadism is deeply entrenched in the digital world, including the so-called Deep Web. Al-Qaeda has long used the Internet to consolidate its rank and file and coordinate terror attacks.

Its ideological sibling, the Islamic State (IS) organisation, also known as ISIS, is technologically savvier.

Its mostly young recruits are digital natives. They are waging jihad both in the lands of conflict and on social media outlets, mainly Twitter.

As of today, "IS fan boys" still maintain a strong presence on the micro blogging sites despite repeated suspensions and hacking attacks by anti-IS groups such as Anonymous with their #OperationIceISIS campaign.

An anonymous-affiliated activist, who goes by the pseudonym Xrsone, recently released the names of 26,000 Twitter accounts belonging to ISIS supporters and asked Twitter to suspend them.

But like a hydra, more ISIS accounts are expected to quickly emerge after old ones are suspended.

Pieter van Ostaeyen, a Dutch expert on terrorism who intensively follows jihadist activities on the web, recently expressed his frustration at Twitter's failure to comprehend an obvious fact: that the effort to purge ISIS online propagandists is futile.

So how are we going to deal with radical Islam? There is no quick fix to this. The problem lies beyond the incendiary writings of some extremists tapping away at their laptops.

Extremism in Islam is not only rooted in the complexities of ancient religious texts, the perennial exegetical battle between Shia and Sunni, but also in decades, if not centuries, of injustice and humiliation suffered by the Muslim world under colonialism and Western hegemony.

However, we do know that the answer to propaganda is not censorship, but education and counter-propaganda.

I'm not suggesting we should debate with these extremists, or declare them deviant. This would be counterproductive.

We all should know by now that you can never have a decent, constructive debate with religious fanatics, especially on the Internet, where everyone, atheists included, is seemingly a fanatic.

One simple way to counter the narratives of salafi jihadism - the ideological foundation of radical groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram - is to show the people targeted by extremist propaganda the many expressions of Islam.

The government and the Muslim community need to challenge the salafi jihadists' claim to legitimacy as the sole manifestation of the faith. It is worth noting that even the extremists can't agree with themselves.

One of the blocked websites, arrahmah.com, for instance, is one of the first and harshest critics of ISIS (ironically, shoutussalam.com, a major ISIS website in Indonesian, was left untouched).

Arrahmah.com is supporting al-Qaeda's Jabhat al-Nusra, the nemesis of ISIS in Syria. Supporters of each group have declared each other as murtadin or apostates.

Most of the time, the extremists are their own worst enemies when it comes to propaganda. ISIS is just too brutal for many Muslims, who cannot see their atrocities without feeling a strong cognitive dissonance.

The fact that ISIS and al-Nusra members have killed each other on the battlefield could also dissuade many would be jihadists from going to Syria.

Liberal Islam, of course, cannot rout extremism, let alone the intellectual gymnastics often displayed by its proponents.

The biggest enemy of extremism is common sense - the simple idea that one can still be a Muslim and live normally in the face of bloody conflicts without having to peruse thousands of classical Islamic texts and modern philosophy to justify his or her position.

Mainstream Muslims who just want to get on with their lives, while often seen as targets of radicalization, could present effective anti-extremism propaganda.

Like the three victims of the Chapel Hill shooting in North Carolina, they do care, a lot, about their faith and the suffering of fellow Muslims in other parts of the world.

But they also intuitively question the logic behind all violent ideologies and how they are far removed from the comfort and normalcy of daily lives. In the minds of ordinary, mainstream Muslims, there are other ways to observe their faith and other ways to help other people.

This is by no means a silver bullet. There is always a possibility that somewhere a young man with no common sense, job or girlfriend finds his path to radicalism online.

But given the flexibility of the Internet and the little control we have over what people can do there, we have no choice but to confront online radicalism.

It should be given the same chance to compete in the marketplace of ideas. This is better than letting the radicals use clandestine channels to spread their messages.

For we will not be able to keep an eye on them and, worse, we will not be able to understand them, which is the key to beating any ideology.

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